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  • Thomas Rainborowe (c. 1610–1648): Civil War Seaman, Siegemaster, and Radical
  • David Farr
Thomas Rainborowe (c. 1610–1648): Civil War Seaman, Siegemaster, and Radical. By Whitney R. D. Jones. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2005. ISBN 1-84383-121-X. Maps. Photographs. Illustration. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. x, 154. $80.00.

"Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he." Rainborowe's words at the Putney Debates (1648) are some of the best known of the English Revolution. Jones's work is of value not only as the first full length study of the man but also because it places Rainborowe's political role in context. He was, first and foremost, a fighting man. At his surest in dealing with Rainborowe's military career, Jones's [End Page 493] account provides sound context for tactics, addressing his role as "siegemaster" and naval commander. Jones recognises his subject's flaws, a "driving ambition in his pursuit of naval leadership" (p. 95), but is also convincing in acquitting Rainborowe of fault in the navy revolt of 1648.

With regard to Rainborowe's political role, Jones sensibly follows A. Woolrych's Soldiers and Statesmen (1987). One of the New Model Army's leading officers, Rainborowe quickly grasped that Charles I's duplicity made any attempt at a genuinely negotiated settlement futile, a position which Cromwell later accepted. At Putney, Rainborowe was "the most eloquent spokesman for the radical (if not explicitly Leveller) cause" (p. 3). Coverage from Rainborowe's perspective—he was with Ireton and Wildman the most prominent speaker—is therefore welcome and the account given is well executed. Jones appreciates the personal clash with Cromwell as another context for Putney and the significance of tone; for example, Cromwell's comment on Rainborowe's controversial attendance. Occasionally Rainborowe's position is divorced from the wider army context of the debates, although this is partly a reflection of his stance. Jones illustrates Aylmer's argument that Rainborowe was "a genuine radical political idealist" (p. 78) and the Levellers' recognition of his potential. Rainborowe appeared at the Ware Mutiny while the Leveller leaders waited nearby. Rainborowe's assassination is also dealt with in depth, Jones concluding that "it seems impossible to rid the whole episode of the miasma of complicity" (p. 125).

Jones occasionally overstates Rainborowe's role. He was part of a committee negotiating Colchester's surrender and no substantial evidence is given for his role in the execution of Lucas and Lisle. The appreciation of the importance of previous engagements, prayer meetings, and the distinctions between agitators and agents is limited. In Brooks's sermon at Rainborowe's funeral, "his" people is probably a religious reference rather than Jones's political reading of it. An analysis of how Rainborowe's position may have derived from New England influence or his religious situation is not developed. His gentry background (his father was an MP in 1640), his relationship with his even more radical brother and fellow soldier, William, and his position in relation to the Commonwealth group could also be further examined. Similarly, there needs to be a more defined examination of him as a republican.

Such lines of enquiry may not, however, be necessarily appropriate in a study of a man who left nothing significant in his own words. Jones provides an excellent overview of Rainborowe's career in a "lively and accessible" style and this work stands as the first point of reference for the academic and general reader.

David Farr
Norwich School
Norwich, United Kingdom


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pp. 493-494
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Archived 2010
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